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Stephen Hart says Canada should be ready for next stage of World Cup qualifying

Canada and coach Stephen Hart advanced to the next round of World Cup qualifying by virtue of their 0-0 tie with St. Kitts and Nevis on Friday. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Chris Young/CP

Stephen Hart's team will be the underdog in World Cup qualifying, but the national squad coach feels Canada has a chance to get there if all his players are on top form.

Canada is gearing up for the third stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014 in a pool with Panama, Honduras and Cuba beginning in June.

"Last year I'd have been worried, but (most) players are playing regularly now," Hart said on a conference call Wednesday after cautioning it was too early for bold predictions. "But if they're healthy, I'd say we're in good position to compete."

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The Canadian squad breezed through the second round, outscoring St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and St. Kitts and Nevis by a combined 18-1 margin.

A much tougher task awaits against Panama, which is ranked 47th by soccer's world governing body FIFA. Honduras is ranked 51st and Cuba 113th. Canada is currently slotted at No. 74 in the world.

It is one of three groups playing in the CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean) zone. Each sends two teams to the final stage of qualifying next year. Canada has gone to the World Cup tournament only once, that being in 1986 in Mexico where it lost its three preliminary round matches.

First up for Canada is a friendly Feb. 29 against Armenia in Cyprus. Hart said he will try to use only European-based players for that game to limit their travel.

Then there is a friendly June 3 against the United States at BMO Field in Toronto, by which time he hopes to have a full squad that includes players from Major League Soccer and elsewhere.

Qualifying begins June 8 with a game in Cuba, which may not be as easy a game as their ranking would indicate.

"They're more difficult to play at home than away from home," said Hart. "Sometimes the whole team doesn't travel outside the country."

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Canada has home games June 12 against Honduras and July 9 against Panama, then travels to Panama on Sept. 9. Cuba visits Toronto on Oct. 12 and Canada plays in Honduras on Oct. 16.

Hart hopes to assemble his squad as soon as European leagues finish their seasons in mid-May, although players on teams involved in promotion or relegation playoffs may be there a little later.

"They'll get a couple of days off but I told them not to plan any extended holidays," said Hart. "We're going straight to camp, at least for the European-based players to start with."

Part of the camp will be held in Florida, where players can get used to the hot conditions they expect to find in Cuba.

He hopes to have 24 or 25 players in camp and cut down the squad from there.

"I have an idea of how we'd like to play and what players, ideally, you'd like to have," he said. "A lot depends on whether the players are playing regularly and are in good form.

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"There are a couple of positions up for grabs. That's where the exhibition games come in."

Canada opted to play all its home qualifying games at BMO Field, which did not sit well with some who felt the national team should visit other parts of the country. Also, due to Toronto's multicultural flavour, they can often draw as many fans for the visiting team as for the home side.

Hart said Toronto was picked because it has a grass field and players don't like playing on artificial surfaces and because it minimizes travel for many of them.

"It feels like home," Hart said. "The facilities are good and we wanted to minimize the time of flying."

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